Ricky Gervais wrote:The CEO of Nike turned over 5 billion dollars last year. To earn that much money, a Nike factory worker in China would have to work 7 days a week, 8 hours a day, for 10,000 years. But they don't wanna! Lazy.
Okay, I admit it. I feel class hatred. I didn't know I did, until I moved near a Sainsbury's, and now I walk around the aisles looking at all the frivolous overpriced follies the depressing sterile middle-aged housewives buy to try and invigorate their sexless bloodless financially comfortable lives. You know what? I even like it. I like doing it. I get a sick pleasure from it. "Taste The Difference" Oranges? Asafoetida? Leaves of Polynesia mixed light salad with quinoa and handpicked Sabel black grapes, in a honey and soy drizzle? ****. Right. Off. The lot of you.
Owen Jones's argument is a three-pronged fork. First he aims to show that British mainstream media and politicians routinely represent the worst traits of the lower classes as being far more prevalent than they are, creating an unpleasant caricature in the public imagination; second, that the lower classes are the perpetual losers of an economy-game whose rules are rigged against them, while politicians cover this up by perpetuating the myth of Meritocratic Britain; and third, that a shift to the Left is the solution to much of this crisis, just as a shift to the Right created it. The book is generally well-argued and persuasive, and written in a slightly pedestrian style, with a dissertation feel. It also gets the Lomax Award for Most Depressing Sentence In Any Book I Read In 2016. "His dream was to be a barman."
Wherever you stand on these issues - before and after reading - Jones helps clarify them in several ways. I was previously unaware that the word "chav" has racist (yes, racist) origins. He gives us a good definition of "working class" - roughly speaking: if you have to work to get by, and can't accumulate capital in the process, you're working class - which can be modified to cover the "underclass" too. He shows that most of us belong to this class. I now know the median annual wage is £22,000, which is actually higher than I might have guessed, but about a quarter of what certain bemusingly out-of-touch media bosses and politicians have guessed.
By way of Christopher Hitchens I heard an old joke in which an Oxford professor asks a student what his dissertation thesis will be. The student tells him that it's about the class system in America. "Oh?" the professor muses, "I didn't think it had one". To which the student replies: "Nobody does. That's how it survives." Well this is an old joke, but what's news to me is that since the early days of New Labour the political class (and much of the journalistic "profession") has been pretending that Britain doesn't have one either. That anyone can spend a week in England and still believe this is astonishing to me. Meanwhile they "demonize" [sic] the working class - often, obviously, without being able to use that term - relying on anecdotal evidence to assert broad trends, and meanwhile blurring the lines between contempt for things like violence, and contempt for things like tacky clothing. They mock and smear and ridicule and fear the "chav".
Meanwhile the deluded dilettantes who run the country are fond of uttering tumbrel remarks such as "we're all middle class now". The focus is continually on paying lip-service to the business and commerce sector and ignoring, or shaming, the service and labour sectors. The mirage this attempts to create is one of a "nation of shopkeepers", to borrow Adam Smith's phrase. So the meritocracy myth - which Owen Jones, with hard facts, does a good job of dispelling - is used to blame the poor for their own poverty. Thus it becomes excusable to be loathing of the poor and indifferent of poverty.
In his zeal to combat these positions, the author sometimes overcompensates. He romanticises the mob somewhat, and in particular is a little too hasty to excuse their xenophobia. This is not necessary to be at their defense. George Bernard Shaw became part of a debate in the early 1900s proposing that no more London homes should be built without baths in them. The Tories protested, saying that the poor wouldn't bother to use them, they want to stink, they'd just keep coal in them, and so on. "Look", said Shaw, "I don't want them to have a bath for their sake. I want them to have a bath for my sake."
Jones expends quite some going after New Labour, as having ceased to stand for the working and "lower" class, and therefore having left them with no mainstream party to vote for. But there's an apparent contradiction in his position. Cast your eyes over the following paragraph, from p214:
According to the British Crime Survey, crime fell from 18.5 million offences in 1993 to 10.7 million by 2009. This success was not achieved because more people were thrown into prison, as many New Labour politicians would have us believe. Indeed, a secret government memo leaked when Labour was in power in 2006 suggested that '80 percent of [the] recent decrease in crime [is] due to economic factors...' Or, consider a 2005 study by the Crime and Society Foundation which argued that escalating murder rates in the 1980s were the legacy of recession and mass unemployment. Indeed, as the economic boom that began in the early 1990s took off, crime rates fell right across the Western world. Even the Conservative-led coalition that took power after the 2010 general election accepted a link between crime and underlying economic factors.
So 1993-2009 then, the glory years. But compare this with his assessment near the end of the chapter:
Today, large swathes of communities are haunted by despair, frustration and boredom. Without real economic recovery, the social diseases that accompany hopelessness have flourished.
It would be wrong to lay all the blame at the feet of the Tories. After all, New Labour left manufacturing to wilt, too.
Here again on p264 he reiterates the reasonable idea that economic causes underscore differential crime rates, and quotes John McDonald on the idea that New Labour's rhetoric about anti-social behaviour was an attempt to distract from the government's own responsibility. But the case for indicting New Labour on this point seems sealed shut by Jones's own fingers, having told us up-front not only that the Blair and Brown years were the years crime fell, but also that we can put this down to economic achievements even their bitterest rivals were forced to concede to them. Jones himself tries not to concede it. If he had, his book would have had to be thinner.